Southern California firefighters race against time, winds

Firefighters in Southern California raced Wednesday to draw containment lines around a series of blazes that have rav...

Posted: Dec 7, 2017 12:07 PM
Updated: Dec 7, 2017 12:07 PM

Firefighters in Southern California raced Wednesday to draw containment lines around a series of blazes that have ravaged scores of homes and businesses and forced tens of thousands of people to quickly grab what they could and retreat from their homes.

Battling the fires has been a fight against the wind and extremely parched conditions. A new fire popped up Wednesday morning, threatening Los Angeles' Bel-Air area and, for a while, causing authorities to shut down a major north-south freeway.

NEW: Wind gusts Thursday could reach 64 mph, forecasters say

NEW: More than 100,000 acres have burned

A break in the feisty winds helped a little and by afternoon the 475-acre Skirball Fire was 5% contained, Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Chuck Butler said. Crews were working feverishly to get more of the blaze under control before the winds whip back up Wednesday night.

"The forward movement of the fire has been stopped at this time," Butler said at an afternoon news conference. "When the winds come up (later in the day) ... they will want to push that fire across the 405 freeway. That's why it's critically important that we get some containment on this tonight."

Live updates: Wildfires spread in Southern California

Evacuations in some of the area's most affluent neighborhoods near the Skirball Fire affected 46,000 people, officials said.

Earlier, 9 miles of Interstate 405 -- one of the nation's busiest freeways -- were shut down after flames swept down the foothills before dawn as stunned motorists watched.

"It was dark until I saw a gigantic ball of orange," I-405 motorist Tiffany Lynette Anderson wrote on Instagram, where she posted a picture of fire raging beside the highway before it was closed. "On absolute fire. I'm grateful to be safe -- truly grateful."

"I could feel the heat on my windows," said Los Angeleno Joy Newcomb, who also drove by the fire.

The fire was on the other side of the highway from both the Skirball museum and the Getty museum, where the art was staying put.

Heavy Santa Ana winds blamed for spreading the infernos still threaten to multiply the destruction. The winds are expected to pick up Wednesday and Thursday, perhaps with gusts of 70 mph, posing a risk of further fire spread.

Latest developments

- The largest fire: The biggest blaze is the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, burning at least 65,000 acres, including parts of Ventura, a city of more than 100,000 people along the Pacific coast. It started Monday evening in a rural area and spread to the city. Officials said the fire has destroyed at least 150 buildings, including an evacuated mental health facility.

- Curfew enacted: On Tuesday, the city of Ventura declared a daily curfew, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., to protect residents and prevent crime such as looting in evacuation areas.

- Told to leave: About 50,000 people in Ventura County have been told or advised to evacuate. More than 12,000 buildings were under threat, officials said Wednesday.

- Creek Fire in northern Los Angeles: The second-largest is the Creek Fire, having burned more than 11,000 acres in and near northern Los Angeles' Sylmar and Tujunga neighborhoods since it began Tuesday morning. Seven firefighters suffered injuries that aren't considered life-threatening.

- Mass exodus: About 150,000 people in Los Angeles were under evacuation orders Tuesday. The number Wednesday, after the orders given because of the fire near I-405, wasn't immediately clear.

- Trump tweet: President Donald Trump, on Twitter, said Wednesday his "thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of California's wildfires," and thanked first responders.

- Masks suggested: The smoke resulting from the Thomas fire in Ventura County is creating a "severe impact on air quality and visibility," the Ventura County Fire Department said on Twitter.

- School closures: More than 260 Los Angeles public and charter schools will be closed Thursday and Friday.

- Out-of-state help: About 300 engines are coming from fire departments in other states, Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby said.

- Other fires: The Rye Fire near Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County grew to about 7,000 acres. That fire was spotted near the Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia.

Smoky hazards

Los Angeles authorities ordered parts of the Bel-Air district near the fire to leave, but those are just a fraction of the evacuations that have been ordered in Southern California since Monday night.

The wildfires are burning dry vegetation along the northern and western edges of Los Angeles, and, more extensively, Ventura County, northwest of the city, for a third day.

Smoke collected even in areas that weren't burning. Health officials warned people in the heavily populated San Fernando Valley and other parts of the northern Los Angeles area to limit their time outdoors.

A video posted to Instagram shows a Los Angeles County Fire helicopter maneuvering around heavy smoke to make a water drop on the Skirball Fire.

The smoke from the fires could be seen from the International Space Station. Astronaut Randy Bresnik wrote in one tweet: "I was asked this evening if we can see the SoCal fires from space. Yes Faith, unfortunately we can. May the Santa Ana's die down soon. #Californiawildfire." In another post he thanked the thousands of people fighting the fires.

Fire could go on for days

The Thomas Fire spanned 65,000 acres (about 101 square miles) in Ventura County, which sits just north and west of Los Angeles.

Officials there said they couldn't give a precise number of homes destroyed, because flames in burned neighborhoods still were too intense for examination. But they had estimated about 150 buildings early Tuesday.

On Wednesday, a line of fire was scorching hills toward the Pacific coast.

Airborne embers were irritating firefighters' eyes, said Rich Macklin, a Ventura County fire spokesman.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency for Ventura County, freeing state resources such as the National Guard to support response efforts.

Flaming tumbleweeds shoot into the air

At his home on Solimar Beach in Ventura, Phil Lee was tired and nervous.

He had a restless night Tuesday into Wednesday after fire put on a startling show near his waterfront home.

There was a deep thicket of brush nearby that had survived a 2015 wildfire.

But when the flames crashed into it Tuesday night it was like a "gas bomb" going off, he said.

Tumbleweeds 5- or 6-feet in diameter shot hundreds of feet in the air, he said, spreading the fire to new spots, including across the nearby 101 highway.

"It's humbling when you see Mother Nature be so aggressive," Lee said.

Lee said he had a kayak on his deck, just in case they need to escape by water.

I won't be a victim, man standing in rubble says

Sergio Barbosa has gone through waves of emotions. On Tuesday he tried to go back to the house he had lived in almost all his life, but police wouldn't let him into the neighborhood.

So he and a friend walked around and found a neighbor with a golf cart that got Barbosa in.

He had woken up that morning, a day after evacuating, with a bad feeling. As they approached his address, he worried, "Please don't let that be my house."

It was, and it was gone.

The home his mother had helped build, where years of memories were made and stored, was white rubble and melted shells in what used to be a kitchen.

He was angry and sad. He was also relieved. He had his answer.

And "... at the end of the day I'm alive. My roommates are alive," he said.

He says he will not let the fire make him a victim, even if all he has left are a few clothes and some personal effects. And he will rebuild -- "twice as nice" -- in the neighborhood he loves.

"I'm not going to let one incident scare me off," he said.

The winds that cause the fire were part of the season's "strongest and longest" Santa Ana event. The Santa Anas are strong, dry winds that high-pressure systems push from east to west, from the mountains and desert areas down into the Los Angeles area.

A red-flag warning, which is for extreme weather conditions that could cause wildfires, is in effect through Saturday.

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